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Jurors recommend checks and balances in county offices

JONESBORO — The two dozen residents who took an oath as members of a special purpose grand jury to investigate alleged malfeasance and corruption in county government said they were shocked, stunned and appalled at what they discovered.

The group sat, listened to testimony and read through boxes of documents for more than two years. They focused on six areas — Clayton County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Victor Hill, Clayton County Water Authority, Clayton County Board of Commission and the cities of Morrow and Lovejoy.

Their investigation resulted in the indictments of Hill and two of his employees, former Morrow City Manager John Lampl and a CCWA manager, Herbert Etheridge; and removal of Lovejoy Mayor Joseph Murphy from office.

Although the body was dissolved Tuesday, Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said more indictments could be handed down.

“Investigations are ongoing,” she said, without elaborating.

Lawson said she was impressed by the group, which consisted of Clayton County residents of a range of ages and ethnicities.

“They did an incredible job,” Lawson said. “They are extraordinary citizens who did an incredible public service for other citizens.”

Clayton County Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons oversaw the jurors and officially dissolved the body. He also commended them for their work.

“You may be criticized for some of your decisions but no one else has seen the evidence you have,” he said. “Sometimes after a trial, jurors will ask if they did the right thing. I tell them if you listened with an open mind and made the best decision you could without prejudice, you did the right thing.”

Lawson said she also expects criticism from detractors who may point to the cost of seating a special purpose grand jury for two and a half years. Jurors are paid $25 a day and met about 70 days from April 2011 to August.

“How can you put a price on justice?” she said. “You can’t.”

Part of what the jurors saw and heard concerned elected officials, Hill in particular. In their report, read out loud in open court, they summarized what they learned about Hill.

For example, evidence and testimony suggested he violated his Oath of Office, jurors said, and participated in kickbacks. Hill appeared to have violated campaign ethics laws, used his position to intimidate staff, personal infractions were met with punishment, unpleasant job assignments, termination or the threat of termination, jurors said.

However, trial jurors who saw and heard the same evidence used to indict Hill failed to convict him. Grand juror Arlandus Sumlin Jr. said the not guilty verdicts in August were shocking.

“Yes, I was surprised at the verdict because of the amount of evidence against him,” Sumlin said. “But I was also not surprised because of his huge cult following. People who fail to look beyond his surface image have no idea what he’s really like.”

The investigative process wasn’t easy. Although elected and appointed officials were subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury to answer questions and provide evidence, not everyone complied. Sumlin said that refusal was also shocking.

“I felt they were hiding something,” he said. “Why invoke your Fifth Amendment right if you have nothing to hide?”

Sumlin said several of those officials were people he’d voted for, supported and respected.

“I was surprised and disappointed,” he said.

So was Lawson.

“As an elected official, if I were subpoenaed to go before any grand jury, I would testify truthfully,” she said. “I can’t comment on what others would do.”

The grand jurors recommended checks and balances to keep officials and employees honest. Taking priority is offering a whistle-blower tip line so county workers feel comfortable reporting wrongdoing without fear of retaliation.

Lawson said when Morrow officials were told about allegations about Olde Towne Morrow, the project at the root of Lampl’s indictment, they made immediate changes. Clayton County Water Authority also responded quickly when the case was made against Etheridge, she said.

The BOC just got the list of recommendations, Lawson said.

“I’m hoping the entities will follow the recommendations this body has made,” she said.

As for Sumlin, he said the experience has changed him.

“I’ll miss it and there’s a lot of work still to be done,” he said. “But it’s better than it was two and a half years ago. I think we’ve made a difference. I know I’ll never be the same again. Sometimes, you just don’t want to know how some things are done. Like sausage. You don’t want to know how it’s made, you just want to fry it up and eat it.”